Patents raise stakes in search wars

Web companies are quietly amassing arsenals of search patents, as they prepare for a high-stakes war over the profitable technology that could one day control how most people get information. The battle lines were drawn last week, when Yahoo dumped longtime partner Google as its provider of Web navigation software and so set off a search engine arms race. The two companies have been tussling for months over a patent for a bidding system--the money engine that powers search-related advertisements--that Yahoo inherited after its acquisition of Overture Services last year. Although the case is unfolding very quietly, it offers an early sign of the intensification of intellectual property struggles over Web search, analysts said.

"Yahoo v. Google is part of the iceberg under the surface," said David Jacobs, an attorney for Lucash, Gesmer and Updegrove, a law firm based in Boston. "A lot goes on behind the scenes, like the exchange of 'nastygrams' between attorneys, and much of that moves the industry or is a drag on it, however you want to look at it."

Patents are important in any business that relies on technology, and it's not surprising to see companies face off over intellectual property (IP) in Web search. But few turf wars have erupted so rapidly, and with such sweeping potential consequences, as they have in the search industry.

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